What to Do About a Terrible Airbnb Stay


I have a friend, I'll call her "Diane." Diane was excited to find an affordable two-bedroom Airbnb rental in Chicago. She looked forward to spending the holidays meeting up with old friends and saving money by cooking for her family instead of eating out every night.

Instead, she ended up wasting the first few days of her trip on the phone with Airbnb customer service, and the unit's owner — who had provided a nearly empty apartment. This was not what she expected from the listing.

"The whole place felt like an abandoned afterthought," Diane said. She learned the owner had moved out and left very little behind — no couch in the living room and not enough kitchen supplies to put together a meal.

Airbnb can be a great way to save money and enjoy neighborhoods outside tourist districts — when things go well. But some guests have been frustrated by the company's response when things don't turn out as advertised.

Airbnb Spokesman Nick Shapiro calls negative experiences "extremely rare" on the service, but said that when they happen, Airbnb wants to get problems fixed and get guests into a better situation if necessary. He points out that guest refunds come directly from the host, and if the company seems to ask tough questions when people complain, it's because it must protect both hosts and guests.

"We are negotiating with another user's money and we are not there on the premises, so we do our best to work with both the host and the guest to find the most fair outcome," Shapiro said.

It is possible to get a refund or replacement accommodation from Airbnb when a rental isn't up to snuff. But you need to play by their rules — and even then, it isn't always easy. Despite trying her best to follow every rule, my friend never ended up getting the full refund or hotel reimbursement she asked for, although she did get some money back from the host after bugging out early. If you find yourself in a similar situation as "Diane," here's what you can do.

1. Act Quickly

Airbnb's policy states that guests must file a claim within 24 hours of check-in in order to claim a refund. They are pretty strict about this. Just contacting them within the first 24 hours — as Diane did — isn't enough. You have to file a complaint within that period to comply with the refund policy.

The company holds payments for the first 24 hours, to give the guest time to verify that all is as it should be. Shapiro explained that since Airbnb staff can't verify complaints in person, caution is necessary.

"It can be easy for a bad actor to fabricate evidence, which ultimately hurts a host. If a guest contacts us on day three of their five-night reservation complaining that the listing is messy, there is no way to know if that mess was caused by the guest or not."

If you discover a problem late at night, don't wait until business hours to complain. Airbnb provides 24/7 customer service everywhere.

2. Contact the Host

If you call Airbnb to complain about a rental, they'll tell you to contact the host first.

"Giving them a chance to fix an issue is the fastest way to make sure you get what you need," Airbnb explains on its website. But don't wait long to hear back from the host before you request that refund. Remember, the clock is ticking.

For this reason, meeting the host for a walkthrough is a good idea, and the best time to bring up any problems with the property.

When Diane and her husband met the owner at that nearly empty Airbnb, they accepted the keys and said goodbye to the owner, a move she now realizes was a mistake.

"I wish I had been less worried about being polite, and more assertive about the missing items right from the start. Having to confront the person who has your money and holds the keys is really challenging. You just want the guy to leave so you can make a game plan and take it all in," she said.

Another way to prevent problems that the host could fix is to communicate with the host before you arrive," Shapiro advised.

3. Communicate Through Airbnb

Use Airbnb's messaging system when you contact the host, so that the company can see your message, when you sent it, and the host's reply. Also save a copy of all communications for yourself, in case you need them later.

4. Read Airbnb's Refund Policy Carefully

Only certain conditions may be eligible for a refund in Airbnb's policy, even in that first 24 hours:

  • If you can't get into the rental;
  • If the listing misrepresents the unit;
  • If the place is dirty or unsafe;
  • If there's an animal there that wasn't disclosed in the listing.

When you submit the refund claim, make it clear how the property qualifies for a refund under these specific conditions.

5. Re-Read the Listing Closely Before Complaining

In order to comply with Airbnb's narrow refund qualifications, it's a good idea to study the listing before contacting them to pinpoint any misrepresentation. It's not a bad idea to print the listing before you travel, in case you have trouble accessing the listing while on your trip. And don't forget to check the photos and captions, not just the main listing text.

"Some of the promises for the apartment were in the photo captions," Diane explained. "So when I first wrote to the owner and Airbnb, everyone claimed there was no promise of a stocked kitchen, etc. I felt like I had imagined it. By the time I realized they were in the photo captions, it was really too late."

It's important to plan your initial complaint carefully, because changing or adding to your complaint later could work against you. Remember, Airbnb staff is looking to protect owners from bad actors.

6. Document the Conditions

Airbnb requires proof in your refund claim, as in photos. Take a picture of that broken window, dirty bathroom, or the gaping hole where the kitchen stove should be, and send it along with your claim.

7. Check the Cancellation Policy

Even if Airbnb and the owner refuse to refund the first night of a stay, if the owner has chosen the "flexible" cancellation policy, you can go on Airbnb and cancel the remainder of your stay for a refund. Of course, you'll need to check out at that point.

With the "moderate" policy, you can get a 50% refund for unused nights. For the stricter policies, you can't get a refund for cancellation after checking in. For a long-term rental, the first month cannot be canceled.

8. Try Social Media

If you feel the host and Airbnb are not being helpful, or you've complained but didn't hear back, a nudge on Twitter or Facebook can get things moving.

When Rose Maura Lorre and her family checked into an Airbnb that didn't live up to the listing photos, had treacherous stairways, a minor bug issue, and "a bedroom that really wasn't," her husband first tried emailing customer service, but then, Lorre said, "I took it to their Facebook page and got an immediate response."

Airbnb found them a new place to stay by the next day, and refunded them for the first night.

Diane got a quick response from Airbnb's Twitter team, although the team's proposed solution didn't work for her. They offered money to buy the missing items, but she didn't feel that she should have to spend her vacation time stocking someone else's kitchen.

9. If the 24-Hour Window Has Passed, Complain Anyway

Shapiro acknowledges that sometimes guests discover a problem mid-stay.

"This is where our customer service team has more responsibility to make a judgment call," Shapiro said. "We have to ask questions like, 'Why was this not discovered until now?' 'Is this something that the guest somehow could be at fault for?'"

Airbnb didn't give Diane a refund, claiming that, although she had complained right away, she had raised the qualifying issues with the apartment too late. But other customers have had better luck. The blog Root of Good describes getting a full refund and an apology voucher when he complained two days after checking into a filthy apartment.

10. Try the Owner Again

For Diane, more problems popped up throughout her stay, like a hairball lurking under the bedsheets. When she wrote to Airbnb again, they directed her to its Resolution Center, where you can request money back directly from the host with a click of a button. Asking doesn't necessarily mean getting, but you can try. Diane was able to convince the host to refund the days she didn't use his apartment.

11. Contact Your Credit Card Provider

As with any unsatisfactory customer experience, you can request that your credit card provider withhold payment. One Airbnb customer, who described on AirbnbHell being locked out of a rental for hours, reported successfully getting a refund through this method.

If your credit card offers travel insurance, you could also ask for a refund via that route. (See also: 12 Travel Perks You Didn't Know Your Credit Card Had)

12. If Nothing Else Works, Try the Media

Columns such as Christopher Elliott's The Travel Troubleshooter are able to spur companies — including Airbnb — to give refunds after initially refusing. Besides, it might feel good to vent about a frustrating experience to a columnist or on TV. (See also: 10 Vacation Rental Alternatives to Airbnb)

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Guest's picture
Rachael J

This is a helpful article. Tips #3 and #11 above are the best in my opinion, but all are good.

We have been renting vacation homes/apts for decades, long before airbnb. We did have a good experience with airbnb helping us when we rented from a momma's boy-type in Italy about 4 years ago. He was a jerk in numerous ways and since I had asked him specifically about a working clothes washer (which we knew we would need since we were on holiday for two weeks) in the airbnb messaging, we had recourse and airbnb got back from him a fair amount of money from our stay since he had lied (the machine was broken).

Although it galls me to pay the airbnb service fee when renting, the plus is that you do have recourse and if you do want to return to a property, all owners we've encountered give us their personal contact details so we can bypass airbnb and its service fee for future rentals.

The overwhelming majority of all our house/apt rentals have been wonderful, and I hope that people reading this article are not dissuaded from renting due to the occasional problem.

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